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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Leverage fic: The Quitting Job (3/5)

November 19th, 2016 (07:25 pm)
melancholy

feeling: melancholy

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE
PART FOUR
PART FIVE



-o-


Eliot doesn’t want the others to know.


Nate sees no reason to tell them anything but the truth.


That Eliot saved their lives.


Just like he always does.


-o-


When it’s over, Eliot pulls Nate aside and holds out his hand. Nate takes it, a little curious, while Eliot gives a firm shake.


“I owe you a thank you,” he says. “For seeing this through.”


“Well, I was being blackmailed--”


Eliot shakes his head. “I also owe you an apology,” he continues. “I lied to the team, and that put you all in jeopardy. I thought I was trying to protect you, but that’s not how this thing works. If I’m a part of this team, I’m a part of this team. No holds barred.”


It’s not what he’s expecting, and Nate’s not entirely sure what to say. Hardison would want reassurance; Parker would want affirmation. Sophie would want to know where she stands.


Eliot, though. He’s not looking for any of that. He just wants Nate to understand.


Nate does.


Which is why he wants Eliot to understand something, too.


“You told me once, how we’re all willing to compromise things for the right price,” he says. “But I want you to know, you never have to compromise for me. For this team. We won’t ask you to do things you don’t want to do.”


“It’s not the same--”


Nate shakes his head, cutting Eliot off. “The warehouse, you should know, you have nothing to prove to me,” he says. “To any of us. You’re more than a hitter for us. You’re part of this team, this...family. We value you, not your efficacy in the field.”


Eliot smiles, inclining his head. “I know,” he says. “That’s why the compromise will always be worth it.”


-o-


Sometimes it’s a lot. Sophie’s affections and Parker’s strange innocence and Hardison’s potential. Add all that to Eliot’s unparalleled trust, and Nate thinks he could be in over his head.


This occurs to him quite vividly at the top of a mountain when there’s nowhere to go but down.


His team will get him there.


Just as much as he gets them there.


-o-


Then Eliot loses a kid at a carnival and does something stupid. Sure, he wins in the end, but he’s beat to hell in a way Nate hasn’t seen before. Quiet and limping, no one states the obvious.


That Eliot screwed up.


That happens on the job, and they all know that, but Eliot made a choice, a stupid, foolhardy choice, and he nearly blew his part of the job and cost a little girl her life. If he’d waited, if he’d listened, if he’d just followed Nate’s damn orders…


There’s the rub with it, right there. Eliot hadn’t followed orders. The one thing Nate’s always trusted about Eliot, and four years in, he’s screwing it up. Nate has half a mind to slap him upside the head -- he might, too, if not for the obvious concussion Eliot’s sporting in the aftermath.


It’s not something he ever thought he’d have to worry about where Eliot is concerned. Eliot’s never needed a lecture about keeping his focus and remembering his priorities. He’s never thought Eliot would be the one to get himself in a dumbass situation because he thought with his heart and not his head.


To be clear, this is Eliot’s fault. Most of this could have been avoided if he’d just followed Nate’s lead. Each bruise and cut is his own doing. Eliot, of all people, knows better.


Maybe that’s the point. Because Eliot didn’t follow orders; because Eliot didn’t just do the job. Eliot didn’t even put himself on the line for the team. No, this is Eliot taking a risk for the benefit of someone who couldn’t. It’s a newfound brashness that makes Eliot a marginally less effective hitter.


And probably a much better person.


Four years ago, Nate would have wanted the hitter.


Today, he thinks he’s willing to take the better person.


-o-


It’s not a surprise that Eliot’s the first one there when they pull Hardison up from the coffin. It doesn’t matter that Eliot was halfway across the cemetery; he’s still the one that hauls Hardison up and pulls him into a hug so tight and fast that Nate’s still trying to catch his breath.


The rush of emotions is something to contend with, because Nate knows how close they came this time. He knows they could have been too late; he knows that they almost didn’t walk away this time.


They almost lost Hardison.


Watching Eliot hold him, Nate understands that’s not the only thing he almost lost.


Hardison’s above ground, but Eliot’s still in over his head. He doesn’t have an exit plan or escape route. Nate couldn’t get Eliot to leave, not even if he tried.


In all of this, Nate’s not just made him a better person.


He’s made him a real person.


With attachments and feelings. With weaknesses and vulnerabilities.


They rescued Hardison.


That’s the good news, and Nate tries to focus on that.


But he knows the bad news.


The bad news is that Nate’s just not sure how he’s going to save Eliot from himself.


-o-


In case Nate’s forgotten, Eliot Spencer used to kill people for a living. That’s what made him the obvious choice to go undercover as a veteran.


It’s also what makes him the worst choice possible.


Nate doesn’t quite grasp that until he hears Eliot on the comms, enduring a line of questioning designed to break him. Eliot doesn’t break -- Nate never thinks he will -- but the glimpse of reality behind Eliot’s calm demeanor is something that threatens to break Nate instead.


It’s not that Eliot’s killed people -- Nate’s known that since he first tracked him all those years ago -- but it’s how Eliot deals with it that gets Nate. There’s no apology, but that doesn’t mean Eliot’s not sorry. But Eliot, he’s a practical man, who knows the past can’t be undone. He doesn’t answer the questions for the man sitting across from him.


He answers for Nate, sitting safe and sound back at his apartment, listening on the comms.


Torture doesn’t work on Eliot, because he endures a private torture every night when he gets to live while other people have died at his hands. Being with this team, doing the work they do, this isn’t about redemption for Eliot.


This is his penance.


That maybe, someday, if he saves enough lives, he’ll be able to justify his own.


Even when the rest of the team goes to sleep, Nate stays on the comms, listening to the sounds of Eliot not sleeping.


Really, Nate knows this is the least he can do.


-o-


They worry him, his team.


This wasn’t a problem before, back when he was drunk, back when he was sober. But now that he’s accepted his place, not as a mastermind but as their friend, he is struck by the weight of it. How is he going to keep Hardison’s ego in check? How is he going to foster Parker’s growing conscience? How is he going to maintain a mature relationship with Sophie without wanting to rip her clothes off every five seconds?


And Eliot -- how the hell is he going to keep a hitter in his service without ordering him to hurt anybody?


It terrifies him now, to think about what they mean to him. It’s preoccupying when he has other things to worry about.


Like keeping the alive.


Like keeping himself alive.


It’s ironic, probably, that he can figure everyone else out and he’s still struggling to make sense of who he is and what he actually wants out of life.


The fact is -- and this is the bitter truth he learned the day Sam died -- Nate can’t save everyone.


He’s still not sure if he’ll even be able to save himself.


-o-


It’s only a matter of time before everything goes up in flames.


Only a matter of time.


Everything.


Up.


In.


Flames.


-o-


He feels the fire, singeing his skin. He hears the blast, ringing hollowly in his hears. The beat of his heart, the catch of his breath when his father says, how much Jimmy Ford loved his son.


It’s too much and not enough, too soon and too late.


He’s outlived his father and his son, and Nate’s the link between nothing.


Eliot carries him back, holds him up. When Parker ducks her head and leaves, when Hardison says how sorry he is, when Sophie squeezes his hand like she’s not going to let go, Eliot props him up and looks him in the eye.


“Whatever you need, Nate,” he says, unflinching and unflagging. “Whatever you need, I’ll do.”


This isn’t an idle offer, and it’s the man who makes dinner and gets embarrassed to sing in front of people. It’s also the man who killed a warehouse full of armed men and is wanted in five countries around the world.


Nate knows what Eliot is offering.


He nods back to Eliot, clearing his raw throat. “I’ll let you know.”


-o-


When Sam had died, Nate wanted to forget.


In his father’s wake, Nate wants to remember.


He wants to remember every detail, every bit of minutia.


So he can pay it back, kind for kind, in excruciating, vivid detail


-o-


He pulls every resource, and he taps every favor. He pushes his team to its limits, and forges ahead blindly because, by now, he knows they’ll follow.


Anywhere.


For any reason.


Nate’s asked for a lot over the years, but Nate will ask for more this time.


This time, Nate will ask for everything.


-o-


It’s funny how well his father’s gun fits in his hand.


Sophie says that’s a line she won’t watch him cross, and Parker and Hardison don’t say anything at all.


Eliot tells him about the personal toll, about how pulling the trigger changes a man. Nate wonders about that for a moment, about the kid Eliot had probably once been and who he might have been if none of this had ever happened.


It’s hard to imagine, impossible, really. Eliot is a necessity to Nate, now more than ever.


Besides, when Nate wakes up in the morning and looks in the mirror, the man he used to knew is already gone. The insurance investigator. The loving husband. The conscientious father.


The blind drunk; the sober maniac. Dark king; white knight. Mastermind, leader, friend.


It’s hard to think about what he’ll lay on the table, what he’s willing to risk. It’s harder still to think about walking away, about quitting while his father’s DNA is still processed in a crime lab in Boston.


The gun, it fits damn perfectly.


Nate won’t admit, though, just how heavy it is.


-o-


Nate doesn’t quit.


Nate pushes and pushes and pushes until he has everything just the way he wants it. Until Latimer and Dubenich are right where Nate wants them.


It’s perfect. Absolutely according to plan. All Nate has to do is pull the trigger and finish this.


But then, he sees them.


Hardison, still watching him to see what it means to lead.


Parker, still watching him to see what it means to be human


Sophie, still watching him to see if he’ll be the man she believes he is.


And Eliot, still watching to see if Nate will make the same mistakes Eliot made years ago.


Nate stands with his future at gunpoint, and realizes for the first time that he doesn’t have to pull the trigger. He’s not his father’s son, and he’s not the father Sam needed him to be. Nate can feel guilty about both those things, but that doesn’t change the fact that being the leader of this mismatched team still means something to him.


Something worth saving.


Something worth changing for.


These people, his team, his friends, his family. They’re not the people they used to be. They’ve changed for him, over the years. In small and large ways. In important ways. They’ve given him everything.


This time, he’ll change for them.


This time, without regret or surrender, Nate will quit.


He puts the gun on the ledge, but he doesn’t walk away.


No, Nate just walks toward something better.


His team.


-o-


When he gets on a boat, he’s not sure where he’s going, but he knows he’ll be back.


He shakes Hardison’s hand firmly and looks him in the eye. He lets Parker hug him, squeezing her back, just a little. Sophie kisses him, and doesn’t ask him to stay.


Eliot smiles, inclining his head just a little, because he knows in a way the others don’t, what might have been.


Nate didn’t pull the trigger, and he probably saved the man he is.


Now it’s time to figure out who that is exactly.


-o-


It’s not an easy thing, being alone with himself. Honestly, he’s not sure how his team does it.


He drinks to his father’s memory, and he thinks how much Sam would have liked being on the open water. He dreams about what might have been, what never was.


More often than not, though, he thinks about his team. He wonders if Parker and Hardison have figured it out. He wonders if Sophie will be ready for him when he gets back.


He wonders if Eliot will have learned to forgive himself yet.


Mostly, he thinks about them. He’s taken them far, but they’ll supported him further. He feels indebted, somehow, in ways he can’t quite explain, but he’s struck with a suddenness of reality that he can’t drown with drink or throw overboard.


The thing is this: nothing lasts forever.


That’s the lesson he’s learned in life, from the good and the bad. Everything is temporary; life is fleeting. This could terrify some people, and it might grieve others. But the point isn’t to hold on as hard as you can.


No, the trick -- the real trick -- is knowing when to quit.


-o-


Nate sails back into harbor, clean, confident and ready.


Nate Ford, after all, always has a plan.


-o-


He doesn’t tell them, not quite. He tells Hardison just enough, because he’ll need some technical support along the way. It’s not that he wants to keep secrets, but he can’t let them talk him out of this. And they will, inevitably, try to talk him out of this.


They don’t see it yet, is the thing.


They don’t know the big picture.


That’s always been Nate’s job.


This time is no different.


-o-


The first thing he does is buy a ring. He puts it in the drawer next to his father’s flask and Sam’s art. He keeps his own wedding band from his marriage to Maggie there for good measure.


The second thing he does is figure out who will do this if he doesn’t. It’s not a question of ability or intellect in a simple sense; instead, it’s a disposition, a readiness. It’s a certain combination of factors. This isn’t a question of who’s best; this is a question of who’s right for the job.


Hardison is more than smart enough, and he’s shown a desire to lead his own team. He’s the only one who’s shown that desire in fact, but Nate imagines if he handed the reigns over to him, he wouldn’t like it near as much as he thinks he would. Hardison needs to think big, which is why he needs someone to temper his ideas with a dose of reality. Putting Hardison in charge would effectively throttle him, and Nate won’t do that to him.


Eliot’s another consideration, because Nate knows he’s more than capable. He’s got a sense of structure and command, and he’d always plan things to keep people safe. That could be his greatest weakness, of course, since he’d never want to risk the other people on the team more than he has to. Eliot’s a bit plaintive in his responses, opting for all or nothing extremes. Nate’s sure he could coax him out of that, but it’s all really a moot point. Eliot doesn’t want to lead it. That’s not why he’s here. Not that he doesn’t like helping clients or get in on the planning, but that’s not what Eliot’s all about. He doesn’t want to be in charge of a team; he wants to be part of a team.


In the end, Parker is the obvious choice. Crazy enough to think of the impossible, and human enough to do it the right way. She’ll temper Hardison, and she’ll include Eliot. She’s the perfect successor, even if she has no idea just yet.


She’ll understand.


They’ll all understand.


It’s Nate’s last, great masterplan.


Let’s go steal a happily ever after..


-o-


He grooms Parker to replace him, but he grooms the others, too. He continues to bolster Hardison without letting him get too cocky, and he continues to offer him the right challenges at the right time.


He teaches Eliot more about the con, about the hooks that every person has. It’s not that you can’t con an honest man, as far as Nate’s concerned. It’s just that there’s no such thing as an honest man. Nate’s learned that the long, roundabout way, and he needs Eliot to understand it, too. Not for the job, though. No, he needs Eliot to see that he’s more than his worst choices.


Ultimately, he has little to offer Eliot on the job, but a world to teach him outside of it. He fosters connections where Eliot is concerned, letting him get invested and believe in his goodness. Eliot just needs to let himself be a real person again, and step by step, Nate gets him there.


See, Nate doesn’t just want to leave a legacy of fighting corruption and sticking up for the people who have nowhere else to turn. He wants to leave a legacy of people who know their worth. He wants Parker to know she’s not crazy and that her feelings are valid. He wants Hardison to know that he’s better as part of a team than he ever would be on his own.


And Eliot just needs to know that he’s a good man who deserves to be happy.


They all do.


Nate’s already made them rich; he’s already made them the best in their line of work.


Now he’ll make them happy.


It’s his greatest challenge yet.


-o-


A challenge, but not impossible. Nate pulls it off, because he is Nate Ford, after all.


And when the pieces are in place, Nate shakes Eliot’s hand and looks him in the eye.


“I’d say call if you need anything, but you never needed anything,” he says, because he knows Eliot’s hook now. He knows why he said no to the first job offer and yes to everything after. He knows.


Eliot grins at him, because he knows it, too. “Yeah,” he says, looking back at Hardison and Parker, hand in hand. “I did.”


Nate’s accomplished a lot in his life, but few things are quite as impressive as this.


-o-


Everything’s in place.


Finally, painstakingly, it’s all according to plan.


He tells Hardison to keep it real; he tells Parker to trust her feelings; he tells Eliot it’s all come full circle.


He puts a ring on Sophie’s finger, and for one moment, life is perfect.


Then, Nate does he only thing left that he can do.


He takes Sophie by the hand, turns his back, and quits one last time.


-o-


That’s it, Nate tells himself. That’s the story, that’s how it ends. He and Sophie settle down, buy a surprisingly modest house with a surprisingly immodest collection of art that they tell everyone is a high quality knockoff. He does all the things he never did before, like mowing the lawn and fixing the kitchen sink. He’s terrible at it, but Sophie volunteers at every museum in the area when she’s not running her theater troupe, and he spends his weekends at art galleries, not reading the latest news of corporate corruption around the world.


Except all the times he does, and the emails he gets from Hardison and the webchats Sophie has with Parker. They’ve moved in together, not that they’re home a lot to enjoy it. Leverage International is an unmitigated success, and Nate would almost have to be jealous that all his own accomplishments are getting dwarfed except he’s too damn proud to care. Hardison is still a genius, and Parker is better at being a mastermind than he even anticipated, so it feels like a win.


It is a win, and Sophie clucks her tongue and says they’ll be pregnant before they know it, they’ll have a family. She can see it in Parker’s eyes, Hardison’s touch.


It’s perfect, Nate thinks to himself.


It’s just perfect.


-o-


Almost.


Life is full of caveats, and Nate understands this. But the better things seem for him and Sophie and Parker and Hardison, the more he can’t help but think he’s left something undone as far as Eliot is concerned.


Eliot shows up on the video calls more often than not, rolling his eyes in the background or adding sarcastic commentary when necessary, but he doesn’t offer much of his life to Nate. With Leverage International being so successful, Nate suspects he has much less time for the brewpub than before, and when Sophie asks about his dating life, there’s always a string of different girls in the picture.


In theory, this is fine. This is Eliot, after all.


And Eliot does seem happy, in the only ways that Eliot ever seems happy.


“He’s doing what he loves, Nate,” Sophie tries to reason with him.


“He’s more than a hitter,” Nate replies.


She huffs. “He’s taking care of Parker and Hardison,” she clarifies, as though it’s obvious. “There’s nothing else that matter to him in the world.”


That, Nate fears, may be just the problem.


-o-


Nate starts an email he doesn’t finish, asking if Eliot wants to stop by for dinner sometime. He dials Eliot’s number but doesn’t leave a message, tickets to a football game in hand.


This isn’t Nate’s job. He’s done everything he can -- and then some -- and now he has to leave it to his team. Eliot’s a grown man. He doesn’t want or need Nate hovering over him like some knockoff father figure with a God complex.


Nate’s quit. To let Parker and Hardison shine, to give Sophie everything she deserves. Nate’s quit to honor his son’s memory and build a better legacy for his own father. Nate’s quit.


Eliot made his job exceptionally easy before.


For some reason, he’s making it even harder now.


-o-


Nate takes a job at a hospital, of all places, serving as a publicity coordinator for the children’s wing. He fudged his credentials just a little, but the fact that he was so passionate about the cause helped seal the deal. Sophie’s production of Titus Andronicus is exceptionally well received, and young actors from around the region have started to apply to study under her. As if that’s not enough, Sophie preoccupies herself by become a docent at the museum, and she single handedly arranges for an exclusive collection of Monets to be put on display. As if that’s not remarkable enough, she does so in a completely legal fashion.


“I had no idea,” Sophie says. “That business and politics were just legal ways to grift. And here I thought I had no other choice but crime!”


Parker and Hardison adopt a dog, a stray mutt who looks like he still has fleas when they bring him home. They call him Lev and treat him like he’s actually a baby.


“Parker has maternal instincts,” Sophie observes, shaking her head on the latest video session while Parker and Hardison chase Lev hopelessly around their house. “Their child will be very talented at least.”


“And terrifying,” Nate says. “Her inhibitions with his confidence? The world won’t know what the hell hit it.”


Sophie smiles. “I’m kind of looking forward to that.”


Nate chuckles. “Yeah,” he agrees. “Me, too.”


He catches Eliot on the line while Parker and Hardison take Lev to the bathroom after he gets into an open bottle of orange soda.


“So,” Nate says, feeling eager and awkward all at once. “How are things?”


“Closed another case last month,” Eliot reports.


“Belgium,” Sophie says. “I read about that one.”


“Dirty bit of work, but Hardison hacked the security system and Parker had enough contingencies that it worked out,” Eliot says. There’s a crash from somewhere offscreen, and Eliot shakes his head. “Hard to believe they can do so many things right and still fail at basic tasks.”


“Well, all we’ve ever know is crime, so that’s easy,” Sophie commiserates. “This whole real world thing -- that’s the challenge.”


“Yeah,” Eliot says absently, staring after Parker and Hardison. “I wouldn’t know.”


Nate wants to say something, needs to say something. He wants to remind Eliot about knives in context and good men who do bad things. He wants to tell Eliot that everyone is more than the sum of their actions, and that the only thing that makes you a hero is the next choice you make. He wants -- he needs -- to make sure he understands that sometimes the most important life you save is your own.


That’s what Nate did, in the end. He got himself in order, and that’s the only way he’s been able to give his team the things they need. It’s how Parker learned to feel, how Hardison learned to be humble. It’s how Sophie learned to settle, and how Nate learned to be.


He wants to tell Eliot it’s his turn.


It’s his turn.


“Damn it, Hardison,” Eliot says. “Look, I got to go, that damn dog--”


There’s a bark and a howl and another crash. Sophie’s eyes widen as Eliot turns the connection off, and Nate’s still sitting there with all the words he didn’t say heavy on his tongue.


It take a long moment before he can swallow them back.


To think, he had once labored under the delusion that quitting was the easy way out


-o-


“Maybe we should visit them,” Nate says in bed with Sophie. “Stop by, stay awhile.”


“Uh uh,” Sophie says. “No way.”


“You want to see them, too,” Nate tells her.


“Sure,” Sophie says. “All of them. But if we go back, if we let ourselves go back--”


She makes a small sound of implosion, hands in the air.


“I don’t know if I could resist the chance to grift again,” she admits.


“But you love your job,” Nate points out.


“Yes, but that’s not how addiction works, remember?” she asks. “If we go back, there’s a good chance we’ll never leave.”


“What if they needed us?” Nate pushes.


“Then they’d ask us,” Sophie says. “Darling, I know you’re worried--”


“I’m not worried,” Nate objects.


“But they’re not little lost puppies anymore,” she says. “They have to be free to make their own choices. Their own mistakes.”


He sighs, but can’t argue that with her.


Rolling over, she drapes an arm across his chest. “We took more than our share of time,” she says. “We owe it to them to let them take theirs.”


He kisses her. “You’re probably right.”


“Probably?” she asks, arching her eyebrows. “Have you forgotten the long years I waited for you to get yourself together? Have you forgotten the long months I waited for you to call me?”


“I know, I know,” Nate says, blushing. “I just -- what if they don’t call?”


“They’ll call when they need to,” Sophie assures him, leaning over to kiss him again. “Trust me, they’ll call.”


-o-


It gets hard after you quit something, because you start to wonder if quitting is just another form of addiction. Nate’s so obsessed with quitting that he feels like he may need to quit all this quitting, but the more the thinks about that, the more he needs another drink.


At least that’s a vice that Sophie doesn’t object to, every now and then.


All the same, Nate always carries his phone with him, though, even to gallery openings and business meetings.


Just in case they call.


-o-


Parker calls to ask him about how to vet new crew members. Hardison asks him about how to pick an engagement ring. He talks to them once or twice a week, and he suspects Sophie talks to them daily.


Eliot says hi, but he doesn’t call much.


-o-


When Nate checks his messages at the most exclusive restaurant in town, Sophie nearly drops it in the wine out of principle alone.


“Were you this obsessive with Sam?” she demands.

“No,” Nate relents. “But look how that turned out.”


“You quit, Nate!” she reminds him.


“The job, but not the team,” he counters.


She groans. “They’ll call, Nate,” she says. “Now quit acting like an overprotective father and order a damn appetizer.”


-o-


Parker calls with perplexing questions about white dresses. Hardison calls to ask if they’re available the weekend of July 24 next year.


They’re getting married, they’ve decided, but are debating about an intimate ceremony in Hardison’s nana’s church or one on top of a skyscraper.


“We can BASE jump when we’re done!” Parker enthuses. “The rigging will fit under the dress. Right, Sophie? Sophie?”


Eliot doesn’t call at all.


-o-


They come early for the wedding. In fact, Sophie takes a whole two weeks off to spend with Parker, making sure that everything is in order. Nate comes along, too, mostly to keep Hardison from getting into trouble. After all, Sophie and Parker wedding planning? Is something no man should be around for.


Nate thinks how ironic it is, that he spent so much of his life chasing them. He’d been drawn to them, even back then, if for all the wrong reasons.


He’s drawn to them now, as if he never stopped chasing them.


Hardison shows him the latest upgrades to their equipment, bragging in a not so subtle fashion about their latest clients and accomplishments. He’s particularly proud of hacking INTERPOL on a case in Berlin, leading Sterling on a trail all the way to Mongolia before he figured out it was a hoax.


Parker is more restrained, but she’s clearly as happy as she’s ever been. The role of mastermind suits her, and she’s blossomed, almost like a cliche flower. She doesn’t brag, though. In fact, she asks questions. She sits down with him across a cup of coffee and asks him about all the trick he’s used, all the mind games he knows how to play.


Eliot, as is probably expected, is the most reticent, even when Nate offers him a beer in front of a game one afternoon. Eliot takes it with a smile and a thanks, and Nate can’t help but notice that he’s wincing every time he moves his shoulder.


This isn’t so surprising -- Eliot’s always nursed his injuries, sporting bruises, ice packs and ace bandage like they’re fashion accessories -- but it’s different this time. Subtle, almost like Eliot’s trying to ignore it. Nate might be able to overlook it if not for the way he’s guarding his ribs and the new scars on his exposed forearms and the different bent of his nose.


“Rough couple of cases, huh?” Nate wagers diplomatically.


Eliot sees through him immediately. “Part of the job, man,” he says. “What are you supposed to do when Parker wants to tackle KGB trained bodyguards?”


He’s got a point there, but that’s not really what this is about. Nate tips back his drink and swallows. “I’m sure there was a better backup plan.”


“Not one that didn’t involve Hardison with a bullet in his head,” Eliot snorts with a swig of his own.


Nate lets that settle for a moment, watching the game on the screen. “You’re being careful, aren’t you, Eliot?”


Eliot shrugs, not even looking at him. “Careful isn’t really the job description,” he says. “Someone’s got to throw the punches, and I’m not the youngest guy out there anymore.”


That’s true, and it’s not something any of them have wanted to talk about. There’s a reason, though, that Nate and Sophie left the team. There’s a reason they walked away.


Because they still could.


The con, it’s not a job for the faint of heart, and every professional has their prime. That window is smaller for a hitter, whose physicality is essential to their survival. Mistakes in Eliot’s line of work are not just lost items and blown security systems. They’re broken ribs and gunshot wounds.


Eliot’s good, and five years ago, he would have known when to walk away.


Nate took that from him, though. Nate took that from him when he made him part of a team, when he started valuing the lives of his friends more than his own. It’s a trait Nate used and abused, trusting Eliot to do whatever it took -- whatever it took -- to get the job done. Eliot can’t walk away now, not anymore. Nate’s known that since he picked up a gun in Moreau’s warehouse. Nate’s know that since Eliot dragged Hardison out of a coffin and hugged him harder than anyone else.


He’s tried -- he really has -- to give Eliot something beyond the job. He’s tried to give him the brewpub, he’s tried to give him outside relationships. He’s tried to make him believe that he’s a good person, that he’s a person who deserve to be happy. He’s tried, but then again, he also quit.


He could never regret leaving with Sophie, but he regrets not quite getting Eliot all the way along. He’s like a lead Nate’s chased but never quite caught, and the failure is startlingly obvious to him now.


“Just be careful,” Nate finally advises stiffly.


Eliot looks at him. “I always make sure Parker and Hardison are safe,” he says. “Always.”


Nate wets his lips. “That’s not what I mean.”


“That’s the job, Nate,” Eliot reminds him.


Nate doesn’t let himself look away. “This is more than a job, Eliot.”


Eliot almost smiles, a faint upturn of his lips. “I know,” he says. “That’s what makes the compromise worth it. Remember?”


Nate does.


Nate does.


-o-


Nate’s there long enough for the bachelor party, which Eliot plans in the utmost detail. It’s surprisingly thoughtful, with good food and orange soda, card games and video games -- hosted at Eliot’s place, no less. There are no strippers and just a few people in attendance. Hardison wins all the games and drinks himself into unconsciousness while toasting himself, his bride and their international campaign against justice.


When the scant guests leave, Nate helps Eliot clean up, watching as the hitter throws a blanket over Hardison, who is passed out on the couch.


“This was nice,” Nate tells him, collecting empty beer cans into a bag. “I think he had fun.”


“Well, I hope so,” Eliot mutters, gathering up a pile of napkins. “He always talked like he wanted it big, but video games and orange soda -- he’s a little easy to predict.”


“Don’t tell him that,” Nate muses while Hardison snores.


“Don’t have to,” Eliot says, combining several bags of trash. “All these years together, I think we already know the truth.”


There’s truth to that, and what they share is a familiarity few people are comfortable with in their lifetime. Friendship, family and beyond -- it’s a connection that can’t be replicated or forged.


Eliot pauses, watching Hardison again. “I know what makes him happy,” he says, somewhat thoughtful. “Even if I think it’s crazy.”


Nate turns his gaze to Eliot, listening for the words he’s not saying. “What about you?” he asks. “What makes you happy?”


Eliot furrows his brow. “Keeping them happy -- that’s what I do,” he says, somewhat short as he puts a few dishes in the dishwasher. “I know what I’m supposed to do, Nate.”


That’s the problem, though. Eliot knows the job, but he doesn’t know himself. Eliot still knows the way Eliot changes when he cooks, the vulnerability when he signs. He sees Eliot’s face when there’s someone who’s more than a one-night stand. He knows that Eliot’s always wanted more than the job.


And he’s close -- he’s so close. But every time Nate thinks Eliot might make that leap, that he’s ready for more -- he shuts himself down. It’s a conscious choice, where Eliot is concerned. That’s the problem, of course. Nate’s never been fighting against fate or circumstance with Eliot’s. He’s been fighting against the very choices the man makes.


“Eliot,” Nate starts, hesitating.


Eliot pulls the trash bags out of the can, moving toward the door. “Got to get these out,” he says, opening up the door.


Nate lets him go, because that’s the choice he’s made.


He has to let him go.


-o-


The wedding is a small, modest affair. It’s on top of a building, which had seemed like a crazy idea at the time, but Sophie has managed to find the perfect venue with a spectacular view of the cityscape. The decor is simple but elegant, and it seems right, somehow. To celebrate their love on the top of the world.


There aren’t many people there, but Archie shows up along with Hardison’s foster mom. Tara slips in, and Peggy comes with Hurley on her arm. Eliot stands as the best man for both of them, holding onto both their rings until the minister asks for them.


Eliot adjusts Parker’s dress and fixes Hardison’s tie before he reminds them about the aliases on their passports and they need to wear sunscreen on the beach and safety harnesses when they jump off buildings.


Nate’s never been one to cry at weddings, but he gets misty eyed at this one.


-o-


Bags packed and plane tickets in hand, Nate knows it’s time to leave. He’s done this before with more fanfare and more fuss, but that time, he’d been so sure. He’s chased them all, ultimately, and it wasn’t easy, but he caught them each in turn. He turned Parker into a fully realized human being. He balanced Hardison into a respectable man. He put a ring on Sophie’s finger and made both their dreams come true.


But he’s missed it, just a little, where Eliot is concerned. He’s given Eliot almost everything he needs except the ability to forgive himself. It’s not an obvious self-flagellation, but Nate can see it for what it is. He can see that fine line between loyalty and duty, self sacrifice and a lack of self worth. Because Eliot, he’s confident and cocky, but he’s not looking for redemption anymore. He’s not even looking to serve his penance. Eliot has accepted that he’s the expendable one, because he can’t stand the thought of them dying and because he already has enough blood on his hand.


Nate wants to fix things, needs to fix it. This is the man he started chasing so many years ago, and it drives him crazy that he’s manage to elude him still.


This isn’t Nate’s job, not anymore.


Nate quit.


As Sophie takes the last of her bags to the car, Nate offers Eliot his hand. “If you need anything,” he says. “Call me.”


Eliot chuckles. “Been there and done that, man,” he says. “You take good care of Sophie, you hear?”


Nate nods back with a fond smile. “You know, we could stay,” he says.


“You’re already packed up--”


“For a little while,” Nate offers with a shrug, and the words are hard through his thick throat. “We could stay.”


Eliot’s smile falls, just a little, before he forces another laugh. “Hell of an idea,” he says. “But you’ve got a life to get to. A wife. You worked too hard for that to quit on it now.”


That’s the hard part, the stupid part, the part Nate hates. Knowing what to quit, when to quit. It was easier before, back when he was the mastermind, back when he saw all the pieces in play and believed he could manipulate where they fell.


Nate worked so hard to quit, to time it perfectly, to get it right. He owes it to himself to embrace the life he’s built -- he owes it to Sophie, who waited for him. To his father, who at least knew the right play to end with. To his son, to Sam, who would have loved the perfect life Nate’s carved out for himself.


The problem with chasing so many things, though, is that you can’t always catch everything. A few things are always going to slip through your fingers, and he gave up everything for Sophie Devereaux, Parker, and Alec Hardison.


There just wasn’t quite enough to bring in Eliot Spencer.


“Just call,” he says finally, giving Eliot a nod as he leaves. “Just call.”


-o-


“Maybe we should call him,” Nate says when they get home. Sophie has already started to unpacked, her copious suitcases strewn over their master bedroom. “Invite him over.”


“Well, he’s always welcome,” Sophie begins while she unfurls a dress to put out for dry cleaning.


“No, that’s not enough,” Nate says, chewing his lip. “He won’t come unless we make him.”


She looks at him, skeptical. “That’s a bit more than an invite, then.”


Nate rolls his eyes. “He won’t accept the fact that he needs or even wants the break.”


Cocking her head, Sophie unzips another bag. “And you think you know that better than him?”


“Of course I do,” Nate says. “You forget that I chased all of you. I was the one who kept you all together.”


“But we were the ones who dragged you back,” Sophie points out.


“Because sometimes we don’t see the things that we need most,” Nate agrees, expertly maneuvering his point forward.


Sophie shakes her head. “Eliot’s a grown man.”


“Who is going to get himself killed,” Nate says. “Did you see him?”


“I saw a man who was giving everything to the people he cares about,” she says. “Same as always.”


“Not the same as always,” Nate says. “Because before, we could trust him to know when he needed to bail on something for his own sake. By giving him a family, we’ve taken away that level of self awareness.”


“So you’re saying we’ve made him weaker by making him stronger?” Sophie asks.


“I’m saying, you and I, we walked away because we knew it was the right time for that,” he says. “Parker and Hardison, they took things to the next level because they knew it was the right time. Eliot? All the signs are in front of his face and he refuses to acknowledge them.”


She brings her brows together. “You think he needs to quit? This is Eliot. He’s a professional.”


“I’m saying, he needs to believe, like the rest of us, that he’s more than a hitter,” he says. “He needs to accept a shifting position on the team and be ready to take his life to the next level.”


“But you assume you know what that next level is,” Sophie says.

“No, not at all,” Nate says. “But I assume that he doesn’t actually want to be the punching bag for the rest of his life.”


“Nobody thinks he’s that,” Sophie says. “And you know Parker and Hardison would never let him--”


Nate holds up a finger. “They would try,” he corrects. “They would try to never let him. But, I mean, I’ve been chasing Eliot this long--”


She smirks. “So if you can’t do it, then how could they?”


Nate’s shoulders fall, duly reprimanded. “I’m worried about him,” he admits. “He needs to be happy.”


“Nate,” Sophie says, sitting down on the bed next to him. “He is happy. You can see that, right?”


“Yeah,” he says. “But I also see the bruises, the scars. I see the way he’s structured his entire life around the team but takes nothing back.”


“You can’t make a man quit a job he loves,” she reminds him gently. “And he does love his job.”


“He loves Parker and Hardison; he loves making a difference,” Nate says. “But it’s a mistake for any of us to think that the only way he can do that is by taking the punishment. I mean, how long can he do that, really? Before it’s too much?”


Sophie puts a hand on his arm. “Have you told him that?”


Nate ducks his head, guilty. “I quit,” he says. He looks up at her. “Remember?”


She sighs, pressing a kiss to his mouth. “He’s happy, happier than I ever thought we’d see him,” she says. “And it’s not perfect, but none of us are. It’s going to take different things for all of us until we get to a point where we’re okay with who we really are and what we really want. The good news is that he has Parker and Hardison there to watch out for him while he gets there. They’ll keep him safe, Nate. You know they will.”


He nods, but he can’t quite bring himself to smile. “Yeah,” he says with a long, tired sigh. “But only if he lets them.”


-o-


Quitting doesn’t always get easier.


Sometimes, though, it does get better.


After all, there is a lot to love about the life he’s embraced now. It’s a remarkable thing, to see Sophie in her element. Art and acting, and she’s never been better at either. It’s impossible to say for sure who Sophie Devereux really was before he started chasing her, but he’s pretty sure that they’ve found the best version of her now.


And Nate, well, he’s still a sucker for lost causes. His latest fundraiser for the hospital broke all expectations, nearly doubling the efforts of the previous year, and he manages to attract the best researchers in the world to a convention that he’s started, dedicated to eradicating childhood cancer.


He opens the wing to the hospital named the Sam Ford Center, which is the premier destination in the world for the once-experimental treatment that IYS denied. It’s saved 225 lives to date. For the record, yes, Nate is counting.


Nate makes a point of being there when each kid is discharged.


And every time one of them doesn’t make it, there is an anonymous donation to cover the cost of the funeral and then some.


Leverage International shows no signs of slowing, and Nate puts news articles on the fridge from their latest cases. Sophie tuts and rolls her eyes but doesn’t touch them. She’s just as proud as he is, even if she shows it differently.


These are the times Nate thinks that life might actually be perfect.


Until he remembers that nothing lasts forever.